Church as we know it is dying, and fast.
About 200 churches a week are closing their doors, which comes out to around 11,000 a year. The church that millenials grew up in was on shaky ground then, and will probably be mostly gone before the next generation. For most church leaders, who make their income exclusively off of filling enough seats and collecting enough tithes, there couldn’t be a greater problem. For the rest of us, this is probably a good thing.
Church Like Christmas Lies
I never grew up believing in Santa Clause. My parents felt that if they convinced us some big red suited oaf snuck into our house every year to drop presents and then one day we found out we’d been lied to, then how could we ever trust them that God existed? We enjoyed the culture of Santa Clause and watched the movies and it was a lot of fun, but Santa never was needed to bring my Christmas experience into cohesion.
However, I know of plenty of people who did believe in Santa Clause and the loss of the Bearded Man in the Sky was often quite painful at first. They had to reorient their reality, re-evaluate what to trust and what to doubt, and eventually come to terms with the fact that even without the system they once held there was still tremendous joy in Christmas. The loss of Santa, over time, turned out to be no great loss at all.
Like Santa, Western Christians have held on to a church model that has brought them great joy and comfort. Like Christmas morning, they know that once a week they can go down to the community “living room.” As long as they are good little boys and girls, as long as they give their tithes (cash, check or credit usually is preferred to milk and cookies in this case) then they can be sure that their spiritual Santa will stand on that pulpit and give them their weekly spiritual presents. They play with those presents after service as they congratulate Santa Pastor on how great their gifts were. They even take them all the way to their local after service lunch spot, and sometimes even all the way home. Then Monday comes around like late January, the presents are forgotten, and they begin to look forward to what Santa will bring next Sunday. (Unless you’re one of those mid-week Bible study types; then you get Wednesday Easter!)
This worked okay when Western culture collectively “believed” in our Christian Santa System, but those days are over. Society seems to have outgrown the way we have always done church. It feels like a lot of traditions without substance. Like playing Santa, setting out the milk and cookies, but no one–not even the children–still believes in him. Suspicion of authority and hunger for truth have led the current generations to ask “is this really what Christianity is all about? Is this really church?”
Like the older brother who stopped believing in Santa years ago, society teases churchgoers for mindlessly walking into a box with 200 of their closest acquaintances just to get some warm feelings and convince each other they met the real thing.
Church promises tansforming life. It promises a community where everyone belongs, where the broken and needy can find healing and help. It promises family, love, and a path to wholeness. It promises restored marriages and unshakable meaning.
Churches promise an encounter with God, but they deliver 3 songs, false hope, and a message that will be forgotten by next Sunday.
Not My Church!
No, never! It’s always the other guy’s church that has the problem. Well, let’s test it. Here are some questions to ask about your church to find out if you are in danger of dying (they are in no particular order, because all of them are important):
- Is your church multi-racial? In a time of diversity, the church is one of the most segregated places in America. The Church Jesus established was racially diverse.
- Is your church economically diverse? Jesus says he is with the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Is your church filled with people like you, or filled with people Jesus would hang out with? Having a homeless ministry doesn’t count. Are they family?
- Is your church sexist? It doesn’t matter if your theology says women can lead. If there are no women in positions of authority like there were in Paul’s day (like Phoebe who carried the same authority to the Roman church as Paul, or Junia the Apostle) then your church is still sexist. If you aren’t empowering women as equals, your community is already slowly poisoning itself.
- Do people meet God at your church? The days of songs and a message are coming to an end. Liberal churches that embrace figurative messages of Jesus as a character rather than a person, and conservative churches that hold to 100% literal understandings of the Bible (see Why Following The Bible Will Get You Lost) are both dying just as fast. If you miss the point of what the Bible is, your church will die. If you miss the point of who Jesus is, your church will die. The only thing that keeps a church alive is if people feel they are having meaningful encounters with a living God. This isn’t to demand that a church have any particular approach to this, but if your friend comes to church for the first time and doesn’t sense God in the room somehow, it’s a clear sign that your church is already dying.
- Does your church demand theological unity? If your church has a problem with people holding differing beliefs, it’s going to die. We are no longer in the Dark Ages. Our congregations are filled with educated people who can read the Bible for themselves and will come to their own conclusions. Even Jesus asked questions and told stories rather than demanding that everyone bow to his answers. If your church is a house of dogma rather than a family of discussion, it will end up as dead as a tomb.
- Are “Sinners” attracted to your church? If people who don’t yet have a direct relationship with Jesus don’t consistently feel drawn to your church community, then your community isn’t filled with Jesus’ life. Sinners were drawn to Jesus, and they wanted the life he had. Those outside your community should look at your life, or the lives of those in your church, and automatically begin to want what you have. A thriving church has people from the “world” that are regularly choosing to become part of the family of Christ. You can call this new converts, new believers, or new family. The simple fact is that if your church family isn’t growing, it is dying.
- Do gays, divorcees, and single parents feel safe in your community? Regardless of your theology on homosexuality, marriage, or premarital sex, these are people we’re talking about; loved ones of God. If they don’t feel safe, loved, accepted and fully embraced in your church as individuals regardless of their performance, then you are not loving like Jesus loved. You’re not the Holy Spirit. Neither is your pastor, and neither is your church. It’s the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin when convicting is needed, and He is responsible for the personal sin life or righteousness life of others.
- Does your church try to monitor sin? If your church members have a vested interest in other’s sin rather than in their value, your church will die. What a community focuses on is what it worships. What you behold you replicate. If your community is constantly focused on behavior, controlling sin, “accountability,” or praying for the “lost sheep in our fold” to end their sinful ways, your church is built on judgement rather than love. Jesus is the only righteous judge, and you really don’t want to be the church he has to kick out of His job position.
Does Your Church Need to Die?
Many people believe if they don’t allow their children to believe in Santa, their kids are missing out somehow. They think their kids’ Christmas experience will be reduced without that imaginary belief system and the traditions that come with it. Yet, the loss of Santa isn’t really a loss, because he was never real to begin with. I never believed, and yet my siblings and I always enjoyed all the same goodness that came from Santa without the baggage of false belief systems.
Most churches are dying because they are filled with the baggage of their church system. Going to a box once a week to sing songs and agree with a sermon with a lot of people who look and think like you just isn’t the Living Way. There is no real Hope in that. To let that system die isn’t a loss; its a gain.
It’s not that Jesus isn’t here, and it’s not that the church is gone. It’s changing. Our old model of church is dying for a good reason. Are you willing to die with it? Are you willing to take up your cross and crucify the things that are against the heart of Jesus?
Maybe our churches need to die, because after death comes resurrection.
- But what is the old model being replaced with? I’ll dive into my perspectives on that here in part two, but I would love to hear what the Real Hope Rising community thinks. Where is all this going? And why? and how do we respond? Can’t wait to build hope with you here in the comments.
- My sources in this post can be found here and here. One of them I feel is misunderstanding the data it has collected, which is why when I explain the issue in my post I interpret it slightly differently from their study. This is because I am also pulling from other studies I have read in the past that go against their findings and I am doing my best to accurately bring cohesion to the two opposing studies.